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CD Review

Piano Concertos

  • Robert DeGaetano: Piano Concerto #1, Op. 3 #1
  • Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto #1 in E minor, Op. 11
Robert DeGaetano, piano
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra/John Yaffé
Includes bonus DVD – Journey of Passion
Navona Records NV5929 76:37 (CD) 16:39 (DVD)
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Apparently, the main appeal of this disc is the piano concerto by Robert DeGaetano, as it is billed over its disc mate, the ever-popular Chopin Concerto #1, and also because there is an accompanying DVD entitled Journey of Passion which gives background information on DeGaetano and on the lengthy evolution of his concerto. Not surprisingly, the Chopin concerto is the more substantive work here and DeGaetano's performance of it is pretty good but not outstanding. Thus, anyone in the market mainly for the Chopin First would likely look toward another source, not least because there are numerous discs offering both Chopin concertos, or at least additional Chopin works.

So, the question is, how good is DeGaetano's concerto? Firstly, let me say something about DeGaetano. He is a composer of some note, though he's probably better known as a pianist. He has appeared at Lincoln Center, most notably in the premiere of his piano composition The Challenger in 1987 and on the television show CBS Sunday Morning hosted by Charles Kuralt, which also featured music from The Challenger. He has concertized across the globe at major venues and also made a number of recordings featuring music by Beethoven, Liszt, Rachmaninov and others.

Now, regarding his concerto… Well, the work isn't exactly something stylistically new or bold, but it is appealing in many ways, especially if you have conservative tastes and don't mind orchestration that isn't particularly imaginative or masterful. (But then you could say that about the Chopin concerto as well!) DeGaetano's music in the first movement calls to mind the styles of several composers, among them Richard Addinsell, Rachmaninov and perhaps Scriabin. The piano writing here isn't always imaginative: much of the time there are runs up and down the piano to accompany the orchestra, somewhat in the spirit of the first movement of the Rachmaninov Second when the main theme is first presented by the orchestra. The second movement, with clicks and pops and trash lid crashes, calls to mind Bartók. The first half of the third movement reminded me of the second movement of the Ravel G Major Concerto. The finale contains much of the humorous spirit of the second movement but is more American sounding, with much less of a Bartókian character except for a brief passage in the middle section. Overall, the finale may vaguely suggest the style of Roy Harris or Samuel Barber or, in a few passages, Aaron Copland.

Having pointed out all these stylistic similarities, one might conclude DeGaetano is merely an imitator. Well, he isn't. For the most part, he carves out an eclectic style that has a recognizable personality, one albeit that is somewhat chameleonic as it so often moves from one sound world or mood to another, here and there exhibiting familiar sounding traits. DeGaetano conveys his feelings in a heartfelt and sometimes striking manner: the big alternate theme in the first movement is catchy and brimming with passion, exuding a soaring and sumptuous Romantic sense that can't be dismissed as second-rate. This is the kind of music that can stick in the mind and ultimately outlast many contemporary works by supposedly more relevant and original composers. The bottom line here is, as regular readers of Classical Net are probably aware, I've reviewed much contemporary music here over the years and most of it is not as enjoyable as this flawed but often inspired concerto. If you like Rachmaninov's Second, you may find the plentiful lush lyricism in this work of some interest. What might make your decision regarding purchase a bit easier is a visit to YouTube, where there are at least two lengthy clips from this album posted.

As suggested above, DeGaetano's performance of the Chopin is reasonably good, though I find his dynamics tilted a bit toward the forte side at times, and in a few passages – like the closing moments of the first movement – he plays with a somewhat choppy manner. It could be that the more potent sound owes something to the miking setup. The acoustics of Reduta Hall in Olomouc, Czech Republic, where the recordings were made, are rather dry and don't aid either the pianist or orchestra. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra plays well in both works for conductor John Yaffé. The sound is clear but perhaps a bit aggressive as already noted.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings